MUCH of our American music was shaped by the African American people. With their roots in the polyrhythmic beats, and strong emphasis on vocals, and their strong sense of self, music flowed from them wherever they went. From the fields of slavery, from the depths of their spiritual beliefs, from their longing for something better, from their soul, erupted the musical styles of the Negro Spirituals, Blues, Jazz, and Soul – just to name a few of the basics.
In our Kindermusik for the Young Child program – Sem. 3, we are learning about African American music, in its various forms, and the influence of these people on the music of history, and the music of today. That’s a lot to cover in just a few lessons, so it seemed some blog enhancements were in order. This series of 3 postings provide just a brief glimpse, through comments and videos, into some of the styles and the fabulous African Americans who were a part of making history, and those still keeping this history alive. There are many good websites that detail this information better, but it would be difficult for a child to relate well to this bulk of information. If anyone knows a better site for children for this, please comment!
I have tried very hard to keep these posting informative, yet easily accessible for young minds, ages 5 and older. But it will take a team effort with a parent reading the brief comments, watching the videos together, and opening up discussion topics. I highly encourage you to invite the spirit of this music into your home, and experience more of this music, through your own recordings, even of modern artists in these styles, or by singing the spirituals, and, as a team, developing new words to the melodies that reflect the life of YOUR child and family.
Slave spirituals were considered some of the first truly American music. (Native American music is in a whole different realm, as it has not developed into a mainstream form.) It was so different than the music from all the European countries that was brought to this new world with the immigrants. Slaves were not permitted to express themselves in their African ways (what a shame). BUT, after a bit of time listening to gospel music, they found a way to express themselves musically. Theirs was hard work and a hard life; their singing and music reflect it.
The following song, Sylvie, was first recorded by Lead Belly, but is performed here by Sweet Honey in the Rock (I have several of their albums, and their music simply soothes my soul.) These SWEET sounding African American Women keep much historical African and African American music alive today, and add new songs that keep the peaceful spirit of these people alive. In this song, the lyrics reflect the way families work together to make it through the long days of hard work. The young girl Sylvie is too young to work in the field, but she spends her day bringing water to the workers. Although it doesn’t describe it in the song, she would have had to work hard to fill the water buckets from a stream or well, and carry the heavy buckets back to the fields, which may not have been close.
Much of the work done by the earliest slaves was to work in the planting fields, esp. the hard work of picking cotton. This upbeat song is performed, and was first recorded, by Lead Belly, one of the classics of African American music. He is known best for his blues music, but was a “master” of many musical styles and even recorded a children’s album which focused on Negro Folk songs for young people. Wow! I’d love to hear that some day.
LeadBelly – Pick a Bale of Cotton
(Actually, MY favorite recording of this song is by Harry Belefonte, another artist who has strived to keep African American music alive. See my blog posting, Calypso for Kids – Harry Belafonte , on my favorite CD of his that is wonderful for children – of all ages!)
“Take This Hammer” was originally sung by chain gang workers on the railroad as they were using HEAVY sledge hammers to pound in the railroad spikes. You can hear how Lead Belly added vocal effects for when the hammers would be hitting the spikes. You can also hear how these people truly felt about their work. Listen carefully to the words and talk about them.
The slave owners soon recognized the fact that allowing the slaves to sing while they worked improved morale, and production in the fields, but didn’t pay too much attention to what they were singing. When they did start paying attention, the slaves simply sang the songs with words in which they knew the meaning, but it was unclear to the listener. Even the Underground Railroad, the path leading NORTH to freedom, was described carefully in music that was passed from slave to slave. Now they could freely share that information without any of the owners realizing WHAT they were sharing with each other. AND the music helped them remember the directions and safe spots. In this way, music was used to help a lot of slaves find the freedom they sought.
In the following two postings, there is more information about how people learned this music, and the improvisational nature of the music.